Thursday, December 31, 2020

Postmortem on my 2020 Gaming Plans

 Back at the beginning of the year I outlined my expected gaming plans for 2020. How did this turn out? Given that Around March-April all gaming for my household suddenly became an online affair, that was definitely an unexpected turn of events.

Well....I predicted with no real effort that Pathfinder 2E and Cypher System would remain go-to games. I did indeed complete a level 1-20 campaign around August of this year in PF2E, and also ran approximately three smaller campaigns, one of which is still ongoing but on hold for the moment. For Cypher System I had a couple small campaigns, one of which paused when frustration over the RNG in Roll20 to cause near constant failure for the players (a thing to ponder as to why) led to my deciding to switch to systems where the probabilities were more "baked in" to the game system (e.g. did not require measuring odds and spending points to influence those odds).

I mentioned Forbidden Lands RPG, which I was quite keen on having picked it up and read through it, but in the end it's proven to be a nonstarter (so far) for several reasons, though the actual module content published for it has proven to be a bounty of useful ideas in other games. 

I also mentioned Alien RPG, which I had just snagged. My only real accomplishment with this system in 2020 was to read through it thoroughly and admire it as a fan of the franchise, but I haven't found the energy to taunt my players with it, yet.....on the plus side, it now has Roll20 support, so it is distinctly possible I will get that chance in 2021.

On Starfinder, I am pleased to say that toward the end of the year I finally got back to this, and have been running the latest Adventure Path from Paizo as the basis for the new campaign. It's proving to be fun and actually kind of instructional...I haven't run any published modules from Paizo in at least ten years, and while the new module series (Fly Free or Die) has some quirks, it's got the right sort of framework on which to drape my style and my players' interests.

Of the last two games I talked about, Cyberpunk Red released quite late in the year so I am still absorbing it in all its glory; it might merit a "game of the year" award but I won't know until I can find the time to--you know--play it. And for Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, I might have got this going but for the pandemic, though late in the year some card support released on Roll20, but still no rulebook support in the compendium, unfortunately.

Of the pick-up-and-play games, the only ones that I gave attention to were White Star and Cepheus Light. Both got some one shots (White Star was intended to go for longer), but ultimately I realized something strange and dark about 2020: I just wasn't in the mood for ultra-lite systems. I don't know if this is just a side effect of being nearly 50 and having a certain sort of "style" to my play that expects a bit more crunch, or if it's a reflection of the fact that I picked two systems to run which just didn't end up cutting it for various reasons. Cepheus Light did not feel like it offered something the full Traveller experience didn't already do better, and White Star felt too much like a derivative pastiche this time, a monument to other better things, that I just felt utterly deflated when I realized I wasn't enjoying it.

 About the most fun I did have was creating an elaborate 1st edition Gamma World game for Roll20, in which I ported everything over, making my own bestiary and rules compendium in the process. I haven't as yet had a chance to run it, probably because I want to preserve the nostalgia of the experience and not expose it to the raw reality of my contemporary preferences, but it was a lot of fun to tinker with the experiment. Truth is, when I do get around to running some more post-apocalyptic stuff, it will be most likely with either GURPS or Mutant Crawl Classics. 

The other "surprise" of 2020 was that after the Pathfinder 2E mega campaign ended I decided at first to run Cypher System, but with a 4-8 session "break" using D&D 5E first. That turned into a longer run than expected as we decided to wait for Godforsaken to come out, and as of now the D&D 5E campaign has taken legs and appears to be one for the long haul right now.  

Oh! Almost forgot: I managed to run another Call of Cthulhu short campaign this year, and have been an actual player (yes! a player!) in an ongoing CoC game set in the 1920's run online by an old friend of mine from Seattle. In short: awesome. I would say my Cthulhu stuff this year is #2 in fond gaming experiences right behind the Pathfinder 2E mega campaign, which was easily one of the best campaigns I've run in the last two decades.

As for 2021's plans.....I'll save that for a future column next year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Reviewing my 2020 Predictions

 Tragically one of my predictions was not "We will spend the rest of the year wrestling with a pandemic equivalent to a low grade fever at a socio-cultural level that occasionally spikes into a fever dream," but boy that would have been a great prediction....but, it was a gaming list anyway, so here's the analysis!

#10. a D&D PHB2 - well, more or less this is what Tasha's Cauldron of Everything is, a Player's Handbook update, so I will say I was spot on.

#9. Starfinder 2.0 announcement - totally off on this. It appears Paizo is sticking to Starfinder as it stands for now. Maybe 2021....or maybe they are afraid to do anything until they sort out whether or not Pathfinder 2E will actually take off or not. 

#8. Playstation 5 is console winner - I think Xbox Series X is holding its own, but the early out-the-gate impressions are that PS5 is outselling the competition and has an edge in terms of exclusives right now.'s probably going to look a lot clearer in 2021 as to how much of a lead PS5 has.

#7. No BRP or Mythic Iceland in 2020 - nailed it! I don't actually think anyone working at or for Chaosium is seriously interested in these projects.

#6. OpenQuest 3rd Edition - I was half right here; there's an OpenQuest 3rd on the way, via Kickstarter, but we all need to wait until February 2021 to see it, and I suspect it may be delayed slightly. 

#5. New Stuff from Flying Buffalo - Well, some stuff has come out, sort of, but not like I expected, so the verdict is still out. The website is slowly improving but they're still a long ways from a functional storefront with easy sales, unfortunately.

#4. A Real SF RPG based on 5E - actually I finally snagged Esper Genesis's first two books and then pre-ordered the GM book this year, and they are pretty cool stuff, so I will have to say this one was already fulfilled and I just didn't know it. But, to some degree, this was a "no" as there is no widely available 5E-powered SF book out there (you have to know to look for Esper Genesis or ask your FLGS to order it; this one is otherwise not well advertised, and I am not sure of their plans after the third book is finished), so I'm going to still count this as a failure. 

#3. A New Form of GURPS - well, we got a pack of combat cards and a Kickstarter for some mini PDFs this year, so I guess I was way off base here. I think I knew this was a pipe dream. I did satisfy my desire for GURPS to some degree by getting some of the reprints through Amazon, and upgraded my old worn 2004 copies of the original rules to some fresh updated reprints.

#2. Aliens Video Game Announcement - Um, if they announced this it flew under my radar, and Google damn well knows I am notified of all things Alien (because Google has me pegged). So I guess no? Still, it's guaranteed to be a next gen release when it does show up (there's quiet talk of an FPS in development).

#1. Switch Pro Announcement - like every Youtube streamer on the planet I predicted a Switch Pro announcement, but in the end all we have is rumors and leaks that may or may not be real. So for 2020, no....but it seems like consensus is Nintendo has to announce it sometime in 2021 to stay trendy.

Okay, so for 2020 my predictions were:

Right: 3

Wrong: 5

Mixed: 2

So....not bad? Kinda horrible? Eh, who cares! 2020 will go down in history as the year we wanted to forget but it just wouldn't let us. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Death Bat's Top Five Video Games of 2020

 This was a weird year for me. Most of the video games I completed are not games released in 2020: I finally completed, for example: Doom (2016), Darksiders Warmastered Edition on Switch (could never get in to this one on the old Xbox 360), most or all of the Destiny 2 content for Shadowkeep and prior expansions not a moment before Beyond Light's release, replaying the Halo series for the umpteenth time, and even Rage 2 (somehow, yes) was wrapped early this year. Still more time was spent puttering around in various games without actually finishing anything (Fortnite, Destiny 2, Horizon Zero Dawn and others are the guilty suspects here).

So evaluating a Best Of list for video games is, as usual, a tough prospect. If I had to devise one, it would look like this:

Best Game of 2020 That I also Played in 2020 So Far: Cyberpunk 2077

Despite the stories of game-breaking bugs my experience so far has been fairly pure. Alas, I am not done playing CP2077 and as a result feel like this has to be a huge "Best Game So Far" appelation as it's possible 40-50 hours in I may have watched my experience transform nightmarishly.

The next category makes sense: games which seem to be designed to persist as "services" which is the industry's way of saying "keep you playing and buying more content." Sometimes these games are good enough to play and even invest in, but as often as not I think the smart players flee when evidence of such a title rears up. That said, my picks are easy since there are only a handful of such titles I have invested in...

Best Game as a Service in 2020 That I am Still Tired of: Fortnite (sigh)

I'm actually back to being tired of Fortnite even as I still enjoy playing it, but to Epic Games' credit they have kept it fairly interesting each season and the pricing on content remains cheaper than usual, especially after their price drops following their legal war on Apple. A recent monthly subscription service actually provides some fair pricing for content, and so even as I debate finally (this sounds really familiar, like I wrote this all last year) at last cutting my ties with the game, it still remains the best "family game" to play.

Speaking of Destiny 2....

Game With The Biggest Identity Crisis: Destiny 2

I love Destiny 2 and unlike Fortnite I am not burned out on it (though I play it lesst often specifically for when I feel like playing it, not because I feel like I am missing anything). I am not invested in their seasons and find much of their in game purchases inexplicable and difficult to discern what their purposes are outside of existing. As a result, I am able to remain focused primarily on the story parts and general experience of playing for fun and exploration. I haven't even tried PvP in Destiny 2 in over a year and half at least, for example.....I can simply ignore that part of the game. I know it's not like this for everyone, but for me it works great, and I avoid burnout.

However! There is a gripe I have: the game recently vaulted several planets, used a rather inexplicable "they done disappeared, wut!" explanation involving the pyramids which brought the darkness to the solar system, and then unvaulted some content from Destiny 1 effectively with minimal serious effort at changes. I wouldn't be bothered if Destiny was now "Destiny 3" and I could load up all the old Destiny 2 campaign content and play it again like I can original Destiny or, say....oh, I don't know...EVERY HALO CAMPAIGN EVER. But I can't, because Bungie wants to compete with Fortnite in the Games as Service market, and they want to keep the player base focused on current content and not split over multiple products, I guess. Still, it's a weird notion that the Red War campaign and its season follow ups are effectively gone, forever. Bungie....Epic can do this because in the end, Fortnite barely has a story, more of an "impression"of a story for kids to follow. But Destiny depends on that story content I feel, a lot more than it depends on the insane crazy player base that grinds those strikes and special events incessantly. Bring back those campaigns in some manner for me to play, please.

Best Old Game I Actually Finished in 2020: Darksiders Warmastered Edition (Switch)

I really got in to the Darksiders games on the Switch, despite trying this one back in the old Xbox 360 days and being more or less nonplussed about it. I guess I had bigger fish to fry back then, but on the Switch this random buy proved to be a compelling experience. The old design of the first Darksiders is noticeable, especially after playing Darksiders II (still working on it), also on Switch, and being much more impressed at how fluid that one is, but overall I really enjoyed this game.  

Runner Up: Crysis Remastered, which I admit to being a sucker for, and have replayed on both Switch and PC now. Get it on sale if you can.

Best Discovery of 2020: Warhammer 40K: Inquisitor

Warhammer 40K: Inquisitor is not a title I would have expected to put on this list, but it's the only title I've been obsessing about recently. I think it's earthy approach to the storylines, which somehow "humanized" the 40K universe for me, mixed with decent Diabloesque environments and combat have made this a monster of a game. I think it came out in 2019, but for purposes of "games I played this year" it's right up there. I snagged it on sale on PS4 originally then again on sale on Steam. If you like isometric ARPGs and want to experience a compelling take on the Warhammer 40K universe, I really can't recommend this enough.

Runner up: Warhammer Chaosbane is almost as good, and while it's a simpler Diabloesque, it's also a lot of fun and supports local co-op, which is something too many games overlook these days. 

So there you have it! My list for 2020 is basically games that came out years ago, and one which has been plagued by a decade of development and a massive bomb of a release. 

THANKS 2020!!!!!!

Monday, December 28, 2020

Death Bat's Top Five RPG Products of 2020

 In this painfully irritating year we all had at least one form of entertainment that sustained our minds despite the convergence of the maelstrom that was 2020: gaming. And amongst gaming even tabletop gaming managed to survive, thanks to online virtual tabletop experiences! As such, since it is once again closing on the end of the year I thought I'd take a moment to highlight the best stuff I managed to snag and enjoy this year. The list this year almost suffers from too much good stuff to pick from, as a lot of really fine books for tabletop gaming came out this year:

#5: Pathfinder 2E Advanced Player's Guide

This tome contained much-needed additions to ancestry and class as well as three new classes and a ton of support material that provided a signficant bridge between the end-state of PF1E and the current state of PF2E. It's not that the core book was missing anything; rather, it's that 2E has that long haul to get to the same "useful content" state that 1E had already achieved. That said, the new material in the new APG was a great addition to the game. 

#4: Cypher System's The Stars Are Fire

The second expansion for Cypher System from the "Your Best Game Ever" Kickstarter was an amazing book, a comprehensive resource for running a range of SF genre games in the Cypher System. The approach taken breaks down genre necessities, tropes and expectations and handily outlines how to handle all of this in Cypher terms. 

#3: Traveller: Behind the Claw

The only thing better than a general purpose scifi toolkit is a dedicated campaign book focusing on prominent border sectors of Imperium Space: Deneb and the Spinward Marches, in the Traveller universe. This book is really referee-friendly, and provides an excellent resource for sandbox gaming in a region rife with potential conflict. Also, maybe it's just me, but this book was surprisingly fun to read and not as dry as some other Imperium setting books have been in the past.

#2: Arcana of the Ancients (5E)

This tome, along with it's two sister volumes Beneath the Monolith and Beasts of Flesh an Steel, comprise three volumes on introducing the high-science fantasy of Numenera to D&D 5E. The three books can collectively serve as direct campaign resources or the toolkits for a GM to do their own thing with the concept. The material meshes well while bringing distinctly Numenera/Cypher concepts to 5E, and if you've been intrigued at the world of Numenera but couldn't convince your players to try out the Cypher System then this resource is a sneaky way to get them in to it. Alternatively, it's a lush resource of additional building blocks for making decidedly non-Tolkienesque fantasy in 5E, too.

#1: Call of Cthulhu 7E: Malleus Monstrorum Volumes I and II

I've been using the PDFs to supplement Cthulhu for months now, but the print editions finally arrived in time for my Xmas present, so lucky me! This two volume set provides a fantastic full-color reinvention of the original 6th edition version of the same, but now with just more, more and even more Mythos goodness. An invaluable resource for Call of Cthulhu 7E keepers and a worthy set for any Mythos collector.

Honorable Mention #1: Alien RPG

Technically Alien RPG came out last year, but I acquired it at the beginning of this year (iirc) and it also released a Starter Set and a boxed campaign (Destroyer of Worlds) that only enhanced how good this game was at representing its source material. As a long time fan of the series (both through better and worse; the Alien franchise has had its fair share of stinkers) it is impressive to see how the Free League team tackled a reconciliation on the many and varied alternate and contradictory takes on alien Canon (and non canon), and managed to produce a game that feels like it might manage to surprise and entertain. 

Honorable Mention #2: Cypher System's Godforsaken

The only reason I felt like I couldn't include this is I haven't finished reading it yet, but it is already clear that Godforsaken does a fine job of escalating Cypher System into the realm of a full fantasy game, no doubt just in time for the upcoming revamp of Ptolus next year. I'll be using it soon for an actual Realms of Chirak campaign, too, as well as revamping my Ensaria campaign, which is a Cypher world I have run some campaigns in themed around the idea of a fantasy realm that is in fact a lost colony world.

Overall though, this was a pretty amazing year for new RPG books, despite the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. Hopefully next year will be better for game developers and publishers alike, as well as gamers everywhere. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Playstation 5 - The Cool New Thing That Replaces the Cool Old Thing

My story about how I managed to acquire a Playstation 5 before Christmas is amusingly convoluted. I'd like to say I didn't jump through some hoops but I most definitely did. The good news is: no scalper! I will never buy a console from a scalper. But I did have an excess cost.....the story:

Best Buy announced a week and a half ago it would have a limited number of Playstation 5's in stock. As has become traditional, I lined up on the page like no doubt a million other purchasers did, and an untold number of bots, and waited to see the retailer online storefront fail again in dramatic fashion. Except this time it didn't! Best Buy, apparently trying to change things up a bit to handle the problem with scalper's bots, put a sort of "wait and re-authenticate your purchase" process in place that was a bit confusing but I held in on the hope the site's spinning wheels led to promise this time instead of disappointment. Lo' and behold, after about 20 minutes I had a PS5 in the basket and want to checkout. The system immediately told me I had to do pickup, but all local stores in Albuquerque declared they were out of stock as I clicked on them. "Want to try Santa Fe?" the prompt suggested but nope, Santa Fe was out of stock. Suddenly only two places were left for grabs: El Paso and Farmington. 

Now, long before El Paso became a COVID hot zone I was disinclined to visit that city anyway, and it's a non trivial drive south, whereas Farmington is a nice location along the north border of New Mexico and there's plenty of things to do in nature along the way, as well as archaeological sites that I suspected weren't open but maybe could still be as I realized it was still sitting in the basket and unclaimed I decided, to hell with it, road trip!

The PS5 was ready for pickup by Saturday. My son and I took the 2.5 hour drive up and and back, making it more of a day trip, and that is where the excess cost arrives (about $25 in gas plus some snacks). During this time I learned that my son knows an almost epic level of detail on the thousands of SCPs out there, largely due to the seemingly endless churn of Youtube videos on the subject. Along the way we passed through the reservation and an area containing an almost spookily sturdy fenced area along the road with specific crossing spots for wildlife, which my son readily speculated was to keep skinwalkers from getting to the road to try and surprise unaware travelers. Fun times!

Anyway, the PS5 was set up in my office on my big screen monitor with the intent of being able to let him play with some regulation while I could turn it on and play after he went to bed. Little did I know that as of Saturday night this turned my office into The Arcade instead.....I also learned that while I have never particularly liked the controls of the Spider-Man games and thus not gotten more than 20 minutes into it, my son is a master and completed the Miles Morales game by Monday, then promptly started a new game+ mode. I enjoyed getting to experience the game without having to put effort in to it!

Unfortunately he then got in to Bugsnax and I had to insist he put headphones on. Is Bugsnax good? That will depend heavily on who you are, your generation as a gamer, and your tolerance for obnoxiously cute. I thought it ironic that he enjoyed the game despite his disgust for muppets, because to me the game was full of digital muppets.

You might be wondering about my impressions of the PS5 after the last few days. I have the following comments, with the caveat that if you don't have one now, you're not missing much yet, since most of the really interesting titles won't release until next year. But if you have an interest in why this is probably the best console to get going forward, here's a summary of my experience so far:

Pro: Graphics

The ray tracing effects are impressive but so far in the games that take advantage of this you need to kind of think for a bit on why they look better. When you start noticing the lighting, reflections and water then it starts to stand out more. Miles Morales looks better than its predecessor, hands down. The game which I thought demonstrated this most aptly so far was, ironically, Fortnite, which even just with adding realistic clouds suddenly stood out. Even without ray tracing the 4K default resolution plus 60 FPS (with the potential for 120 FPS I am told) is going to impress console users from the prior generation; to PC gamers with decent gaming PCs the differences will be more along the lines of, "Look who caught up....for now." 

Pro: Processing Power

This thing loads games damned quickly, and so far it's only died once on my son's Miles Morales playthrough (about six hours in). It moves in "real tme" which is to say that the stutters and delays common to PS4 and Xbox One UI's is nonexistent here.

Pro: Backwards Compatibility

A majority (as in almost all) games playable on PS4 are also available on PS5. Your existing library from the PS4 will port over. I played a few PS4 games, and only one so far gave me a "this may not play as intended" warning (Batman: Arkham City). Days Gone ran at 60 FPS. There are lists on various PS websites showing what PS4 games are getting enhancements on the PS5, and Days Gone and God of War are amongst those. Some get direct PS5 upgrades such as Mortal Kombat 11 and Dead by Daylight. I haven't tried either of those out yet, but I have them in PS5 versions now for free since I owned them on PS4 which is nice. I played some Black Mirror which did not appear enhanced (but that game's merits lie not in the graphics anyway, but rather the mood). Left For Dead II The Last of Us 2* looked great as usual but it looked great to begin with so I can't tell if it's enhanced or not yet.

A feature I didn't realize until investigating is that while no extended storage options exist for PS5 games yet, you can take any existing extended storage on the PS4 and move it over without any issues to the PS5, just plug it in and all the games you had on that storage will work on the new system. The catch is you cannot run PS5 games from the extended storage, I am suspecting because you need some minimum specs to do so efficiently. The extended storage I had on my old PS4 Pro was a 1 TB SSD drive so this has worked out well for me; I moved all games I wanted to play on PS5 over to it, and my PS4 Pro is now basically a dumpster for older games I will keep on it until I decide if I need the thing anymore.

Pro: Controllers

The new Playstation controllers use haptic feedback and sensitive triggers that are difficult to explain but they are absolutely game changers. The level of haptic feedback is demonstrated in a demo game that comes preloaded with the PS5 and shows off what can be done; the controller is bar none the best experience about the new console, and I sincerely hope more PS5 games in the future take full advantage of the level of feedback and sensitivity that the controller offers. It also includes the usual speakers and a microphone, built in. This controller is hard to talk up enough; you need to experience it to appreciate it.

Pro: Redesigned UI

I like the new UI overall, and it feels like an iterative leap into a new console generation. There are some features that are just plain better in how you access things, and information is grouped smartly (for the most part). A few things bug me, but these are minor quibbles (why does your full library pop up first, and the second tab is your installed games, for example), bit overall it dramatically improves on the Playstation UI design and feels like a move forward.

Con: Storage

Despite being able to attach PS4 storage and immediately use it, the PS5 only really has about 600 GB of accessible storage for PS5 titles, and no expandable storage available yet. This is good now, with so few PS5-only titles out as of yet, but will become a problem Sony needs to fix if they want to encourage people to buy more games. 

Con: A Dusty Wasteland of Releases

The PS5 has maybe a dozen titles that are exclusively PS5 or enhanced for PS5, and all of them can be played in PS4 iterations. It looks a lot better than the Xbox Series X (which best as I can tell has no exclusives, but my Xbox Series X arrives on January 5th so I'll talk more about that then). On the plus side it is showing off a good two dozen future titles which all look amazing....and will be, when they arrive next year. This means you can comfortably afford to wait a few more months before diving in to the new console generation expecting lots of exclusives and enhanced titles.

Two titles I want to gripe about: Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War's split-screen play is just as broken on PS5 as it was on PS4. I am so irritated at Activision (in the general consumer sense of, "Hey, I paid money for this and it didn't work" sense) that I may sit out future CoD titles at last. Is this the straw that broke the camel's back? Maybe....I mean, Epic clearly invested in prepping for the new consoles, as Fortnite runs beautifully and also handles split-screen like a professional game developer was doing it. Take note, Activision and CD Project Red!

The other gripe is about Warhammer: Chaosbane. I have this on PS4 but the PS5 edition is exclusive and must be purchased. Shame on you, Nacon! 

My Take

Getting this felt more like a triumphant win against a broken online retail process, so I guess for that alone it's worth it for me to have this so early in its release just so I can see the PS5 library grow. Also, I had the money at that moment and am glad to get this thing before Xmas, my kid is having a great Winter Break as a result (and I am too, when I pry him off of the machine). If you are not an early adopter and you don't mind waiting, however, it's certainly okay to sit this out for a while. If you already have a nice gaming rig with a ray tracing-ready GPU (RTX) you'll be less impressed with the PS5, anyway. That said....the console makes many games more accessible and fun at a family level, and for that alone I am glad to have it. Also, the forthcoming (and existing) Playstaion exclusives make this a must-have, especially for gamers who enjoy good single player campaigns, of which the Playstation 4 and 5 both have many existing and forthcoming titles. 

Anyay, once I have my Xbox Series X I will be interested to see how the two stack up to one another. I am pretty sure my Series X experience is going to be (for a while at least) just a "play my existing library of games and debate whether to get Halo Infinite on Xbox or PC" type situation, but I think it will also continue to serve its purpose as the family console and UHD/Blu-Ray player nicely. With the Playstation 5 though I feel like I have little to no use for my old Ps4 Pro, as this new iteration expands on it in every manner I could hope for. Indeed, I feel like the only reason to own an Xbox at this point is to be an arbitrary completionist....but we'll see soon if there is any truth to this. 

*Watch out kids, this is the sort of mistake you make when your brain gets old.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk Red - Nostalgia for a Dystopian Future

 As I was playing Cyberpunk 2077 this weekend while reading the hefty new tabletop RPG edition in spare moments, I realized that this is definitively a product that caters to the specific corners of my own youth that fill a nostalgia niche. Nope, it turns out that my specific disdain for much of the past is not because I don't "get" the nostalgia's because that craze needs to be specifically curated for each individual. 

For me, some of what might constitute nostalgia has never quite "gone away" and as a result it continued to harbor my interest over the decades....I never moved on from the Alien film, for example, and instead continued to enjoy all subsequent movies (both for better and worse) as well as the novels (also for better or worse). D&D has been constant and pervasive, a lifelong hobby I never took a twenty year break from like some of my high school and college friends did. As a result, for me D&D is an arc of progress over many years, and was never frozen in amber.

With Cyberpunk 2020, I had a game I played intensely for about four years in college, and I was deeply obsessed with it (and secondarily with its source inspirations in Gibson, Stephenson, Williams, Rucker, Dick and others). But then something happened around 1995-1996, in which I moved several states away and ultimately dissolved my Cyberpunk collection. As the years closed in on 2020 the game itself remained firmly a dwindling speck in my rearview mirror. As a result, when Cyberpunk 2077 and Cyberpunk Red materialized late this year, a year in which the dystopian part of the Cyberpunk element manifested in full (but without any of the cool Cyber or Punk parts of the equation), it suddenly dawned on me that I had, here, an example of something that neatly fits into a nostalgia angle for me. 

Cyberpunk 2077 is particularly compelling. I had picked up a very nice laptop with a GTX 2070 Max Q GPU specifically with the idea in mind that I wanted to run this game. As I was playing Cyberpunk 2077 over the weekend (on ultra settings with the ray tracing turned up to the max) I realized that this game at times felt like a fever dream memory of the adventures we played back in college, a canvas of something trapped in the books and dice and character sheets, and of course our imaginations, now enmeshed in graphics and storytelling that brought them sharply in to light. 

Cyberpunk 2077, if anything, feels a bit anachronistic. It's simultaneously almost too close to modern urban nightmare living and also the elements of contemporary culture are painted in broad predictive strokes as to what this will look like in our future. An ominous city in which sunlight lurks high above, while a seething mass of humanity that is barely recognizable as such chases personal enhancement and gratification in a dystopian nightmare bordering somewhere between Corporate Rule and the personal libertarian ideal to shoot back if shot at, mixed with a firm belief in nihilism shot through with the odd moments where you can be in the Kabuki district looking at racks of dirty cyberporn magazine and suddenly a lone child runs by and I am thinking, "Yeah, someone somewhere still needs to be making kids in this horrifying universe....I wonder where those people are?"

I imagine that a generation which has grown up in today's actual internet environment might find some oddities with Cyberpunk's vision of the future, even as it seems to have so many eerie truths to it. Like my son's sometimes amusing and at other times bizarre interpretations of what Star Wars is really about, it is divorced entirely from what started it. If you weren't even alive when the fiction and game that built a subgenre rose to prominence and eventually fell back in to obscurity, what does it feel like to look at this insanely dark vision of the future now, when it seems genuinely closer and more poignant than ever before. 

Musings aside, I do have some pragmatic comments on the video game. Most notable is that I think if you're going to play this, try to do it on a machine that can run it at "ultra' graphics with all the Ray Tracing effect maxed out. I ran it both with and without Ray Tracing. Without Ray Tracing it looked good, but maybe not as good as, say, "Horizon: Zero Dawn" or many other titles specifically built to take advantage of the now "last" generation of consoles and PC GPUs. With Ray Tracing on I suddenly got a glimpse of why this feature is seen as a big deal; it leads to some moments in the game where there's an eerie sense of surreal reality to the environment as it almost "just about" lines up with what your brain would interpret as real.....almost, I say, because then an NPC walks through you or some odd thing happens that remind you its a video game.

So my suggestion is: get this game, but get it on the best rig you can afford, and stay away from last gen tech for playing it (especially PS4 and original Xbox One). Also, and I can't stress this enough, get it especially if you have a nostalgic fondness for classic Cyberpunk, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

As for the book Cyberpunk Red....more on that soon. I will say this: while Cyberpunk Red is definitely a sequel to the predecessor editions of the game, and it's a really nice looking book in true CP tradition, the video game seems to be at once an homage and reinvention of the setting as much as anything; Cyberpunk 2077, functioning as it does, but in a "realistic" timeline of 57 years from now. The actual 2077. Cyberpunk Red, meanwhile, builds in the history that has come before and so far looks like it could work well either to continue that existing tradition, model the future in CP 2077, or of course let you build your own dystopian future history to suit to taste.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

Fun at Every Level - A Pipe Dream or Design Reality?

A recent comment on an older Starfinder post got me to thinking: the comment was that essentially the problem with higher level D&D 5E is the inverse of lower level Starfinder, that a high level D&D game  and a low level Starfinder game are painful in comparable ways. There is more than a little truth to it. With D&D 5E there's a good chance you've experienced some measure of fatigue with what happens when the game system, built around exploding hit points, gets to a certain point in play at higher level.* The problem with 5E is not particularly new to that edition; it actually plays much better at high level than 3rd edition versions before it, in fact. The problem is "new' to 5E in the sense that it fixed some underlying issues with prior editions (math complexity, juggling stackables, and too many iterative attacks and modifiers) with a new problem (simpler rules, but the hit point bloat just sucks). 

Starfinder has an entirely different issue: at low level it lets you play what essentially amount to pathetic miscreants. You can barely do anything, and you can afford gear that is one step up from a Laser Tag game. You don't get truly interesting class abilities until about level 4, and you don't start affording scifi weaponry that feels like something not handed to the short bus until around level 6-7. By the time you're level 10 you start to feel like a real adventurer. Starfinder is a victim of its own balancing act, carried too far. I'm running it right now, and my goal is to award heaps of XP tro make the first 4 levels just fly by.

I think Paizo realized this was a problem, too. Pathfinder 2E manages to succinctly balance out the merit of low level gaming against higher levels in ways neither of the other two systems are all that good at. Low level PF2E characters feel squishy, but they have bite. High level PF2E characters are interesting and complex, but fights somehow only last a little bit longer than low level battles do. It's a good design balance, and I love how smooth it is. 

Now, to contrast there are other games out there which handle this very differently, suggesting that the high level/low level problems of some games are more characteristic of D20 systems than they are of, say, Cypher System or Savage Worlds. Those games have their own issues, of course....but sometimes they also have their own built in fixes, too. For example, Cypher System deliberately makes a lot of tasks at lower level trivial and automatic as characters advance in power, but high level play in Cypher is functionally identical to low level play, just with a greater need for sacrifice from the resource mechanic which drives all actions. Meanwhile, Savage Worlds runs on very flat baseline stats, and all the edges and perks a character gains over time are designed mainly to make it easier to hit the target numbers than anything else; the number stay the same. 

Although I think, for purposes of D20, that Pathfinder 2E hits the mark very closely for me, I bet there are still better ways to design a D20-based system which manage to retain the rules simplicity of 5E with the tactical granularity of Starfinder or Pathfinder. These designs might even retain consistent feelings of fun and engagement at all levels of play. If you know of any systems out there that seem to do a better job of accomplishing this than the current era of D20 systems I'd be interested in hearing about them.


*This issue with high level 5E is more evident to first time gamers than those who survived 3rd edition D&D, as we all remember the gruesome high level gaming days that 5E "fixed" for our purposes at least!

Hah had a typo in the title. Pire. Shoulda been Pyre! Would be even more odd than Pipe.